Wednesday, May 04, 2011

How deeply has "Atlas Shrugged" penetrated our culture?

A measure of the success of the "Atlas Shrugged" film is how much it is changing the national conversation.

As I've noted here earlier, the left is so worried about this trend that they launched pre-emptive warfare against the movie, and have continued their assault to a degree that I believe is unprecedented in film criticism. The barrage has been so over-the-top, so unrelenting, that anyone not familiar with Ayn Rand and her novel would rightly wonder, What in hell is going on? If the film, its ideas, the book that inspired it, and the author who wrote the novel, were truly as laughable and insignificant as the Culturati almost unanimously contend, why not just dismiss it and move on?

For instance, the major online leftist rallying point, "Huffington Post," simply cannot shut up about the movie, or Rand, or her books, and especially her ideas. The sneering commentary, mockery, insults, satires, and denunciations pouring forth from that site are relentless. How relentless? I decided to do a Web search on the terms "Atlas Shrugged Huffington Post." See for yourself. The list of linked commentaries and articles goes on and on, page after page.

For a film so supposedly ludicrous, an author so allegedly contemptible, a novel so purportedly laughable, and a philosophy so self-evidently ridiculous, Ms. Huffington's collective seems to be granting it all an amazing level of attention. Methinks the lady (and her minions) doth protest too much.

Tucked between all the punchlines, though, we find commentaries that reveal more clearly what is really going on here. The grandees of the Ruling Class are, frankly, scared. They're scared that Rand's ideas and overarching Narrative -- which constitute the antithesis of everything they represent and hold dear -- are catching on with millions of people. They know that, if this continues, it will pose a grave threat to their entire self-aggrandizing racket. That is why they tried so hard to kill the movie with ridicule, long before it was even released.

And that is also why they, and their intellectual apologists, are trying to drive philosophic wedges between Ayn Rand and her many fans. For instance, we find this supposedly "moderate" college professor instructing conservatives about why they should reject Rand:
But given today's uncertain economic climate and our highly polarized political culture, objectivism is no longer a fringe intellectual force in the Republican party. One can see its influence in the mainstream media and see it on the screens of American cinemas. It's also popular among members of Congress, namely Paul Ryan and Rand Paul.

The objectivist perversion of classical liberalism, and their slavish worship of Rand, is at odds with the American conservative tradition and it threatens its political center, and unless moderates rise up to counter this intellectual poison, intelligent conservative thought will continue to decline and GOP party leadership will continue its drift toward the far right.
Of course, closet liberals, such as this professor, would love nothing better than for the Republican Party to continue on its philosophically anemic, "moderate" march to intellectual bankruptcy and political oblivion, by repudiating the free-market/limited-government agenda championed by Rand. They would love nothing better than for the GOP to continue to select standard-bearers like McCain/Bush/Dole/Snowe/Specter/Collins/Graham/etc. -- "moderates [who will] rise up to counter this intellectual poison." That would truncate boundaries of the political spectrum to conform to their own comfort zone, admitting only those who accept some variant of statist corporatism or welfare-state socialism. And that, in turn, would guarantee the enduring domination of our culture by the bipartisan Ruling Class.

What scares statists is that even influential religious conservatives -- such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Cal Thomas -- as well as a number of pragmatic neocons, like Fred Barnes -- have endorsed the "Atlas Shrugged" movie to their legions of fans and followers. Ayn Rand's name and slogans from her books frequently appear on signs and in speeches at Tea Party rallies. As the professor notes, Members of Congress and the judiciary (e.g., Justice Clarence Thomas and Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) also count themselves as fans of Rand's works.

All this is worrisome to leftists, of course. But it also worries "compassionate conservative" statists, such as Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, who felt compelled to attack the film, its ideas, and their author. "Reaction to Rand," he says accurately, "draws a line in political theory":
Many libertarians trace their inspiration to Rand’s novels, while sometimes distancing themselves from Objectivism. But both libertarians and Objectivists are moved by the mania of a single idea — a freedom indistinguishable from selfishness. This unbalanced emphasis on one element of political theory — at the expense of other public goals such as justice and equal opportunity — is the evidence of a rigid ideology. . . . Conservatives have been generally suspicious of all ideologies, preferring long practice and moral tradition to utopian schemes of left or right. And Rand is nothing if not utopian. In “Atlas Shrugged,” she refers to her libertarian valley of the blessed as Atlantis. It is an attractive place, which does not exist, and those who seek it drown.
But the Randian challenge goes well beyond politics. The film has also forced conservatives, especially religious ones, to wrestle with disquieting, even alarming, philosophical ideas. The Christian conservative Acton Institute, for example, responds with awkward ambivalence to the movie and to Rand's intellectual legacy. Another conservative Christian writer, Colleen Carroll Campbell -- like Michael Gerson, a former presidential speechwriter -- worries deeply about the growing influence of Rand on the right; in fact, she regards it as a "Battle for the Republican Soul":
Rand's resurgent popularity and the rising influence of radical libertarianism in the GOP do not bode well for a Republican party hoping to revive Reagan's big tent. Nor is respect for "the virtue of selfishness," as Rand called it, an adequate principle by which to govern a nation.

Tea Party activists who embrace Rand as the second coming of America's founding fathers forget that as realistic as our founders were about the dangers of intrusive government and the self-interest that motivates citizens, they also were convinced that a free society requires a vibrant moral and religious culture to sustain it. . . . Despite the fiscal focus that characterizes Tea Party gatherings, the movement includes many social conservatives who oppose abortion, embryonic research, euthanasia and the redefinition of marriage as a unisex institution. . . . Their belief in original sin makes them suspicious of the idea that our human condition can be perfected through the right government program or political ideology. . . . It's a sign of our narcissistic times that conservatives who see freedom and goodness as inextricably linked often are treated like skunks at the Grand Old Party, and in American public life in general. And it's all the more reason that Republicans eyeing the White House should spurn Rand's shrill exaltation of selfishness and turn to conservatism's deeper, more life-affirming roots to make their case for change.
Despite such misgivings, Rand's books are getting traction even deep within Christian circles. Let me close with the most amusing (to me) example to date: a feature article in the National Catholic Register, no less, titled -- believe it or not -- "What if the Church Went Galt?" It opens thus:
In the famous novel Atlas Shrugged, the capitalists, maligned and put upon by the overreaching hand of government, all suddenly disappear so that the world would discover how much they really needed the capitalists. They called it “Going Galt” after the man named John Galt who initially vanished.

Today, few groups are more maligned and put upon than Catholics both here in America and around the world. We’ve all heard it suggested that the world would be better off without the Catholic Church.

So this is my response. Not that it could ever happen but what if the Catholic Church went “Galt.” What would happen to the world if the Catholic Church just stopped. Everything.
When a writer in an official Catholic publication feels inspired to draw his metaphors and lessons from Ayn Rand's masterwork, you know that her influence is profound and growing.

And that is why the Ruling Class establishment cannot bring itself to ignore her any longer. The sheer volume and intensity of their intemperate mockery gives the lie to their claims that her ideas aren't worth bothering about. They are bothered, all right -- as they should be -- about a looming philosophic menace to their shaky hold on our culture.

Reports of the death of books are greatly exaggerated

Book publishing and sales are not in decline. However, the forms of their delivery are changing radically, as I have pointed out here repeatedly.

Editor and publisher Peter Osnos, writing in The Atlantic:
Robert Darnton, the Harvard librarian and our preeminent writer about books from the perspective of history, has a fascinating piece in the current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education that, among other observations, demolishes the notion that books overall are in inexorable decline. Darnton quotes 2009 numbers provided by Bowker, the data agency for publishing, which records 288,355 new and reissued titles and speculates that the numbers for 2010 and 2011 will show continuing increases; a further 764,448 titles in 2009 fell into a "nontraditional" category of self-published, micro-niche, and print-on-demand books, according to Bowker. "However it is measured," Darnton wrote, "the population of books is increasing, not decreasing and certainly not dying". . . .

In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal survey on self-publishing concluded that e-book titles priced as low as 99 cents are making an increasing impact on the market. Jeffrey Trachtenberg, the newspaper's respected publishing reporter, wrote: "As digital sales surge, publishers are casting a worried eye towards the previously scorned self-published market. Unlike five years ago, when self-published writers rarely saw their works on the same shelf as the industry's biggest names, the low cost of digital publishing coupled with Twitter and other social-networking tools, has enabled previously unknown writers to make a splash". . . .

For those of us in all aspects of publishing, these are heady times--which is a mix of dizzying, exciting, and to be candid, somewhat intimidating, given the pace of transformation and the unknowable consequences of so dramatic a period of upheaval. One outcome is certain--there will be books and they will be read, one way or another.
Read it all.

Leading environmentalist admits that movement is "lost"

George Monbiot, a leading environmentalist writer, now acknowledges that the environmentalist movement's policy prescriptions are intellectually incoherent and utterly contradictory. Yet he still clings bitterly to the false Malthusian economic Narrative that underpins environmentalist theory.

Walter Russell Mead comments:
This is an awesome admission of categorical intellectual, political and moral failure. For two decades greens have arrogated to themselves the authority of science and wrapped themselves in the arrogant certainty of self-righteous contempt for those who oppose them. They have equated skepticism about their incoherent and contradictory policy proposals with hatred of science and attacked their critics as the soulless hired shills of the oil companies, happy to ruin humanity for the sake of some corporate largesse.

Monbiot has worked his way through to a cogent description of the dead end the global green movement has reached, but he has not yet diagnosed the cause. In particular, he remains a staunch Malthusian. . . . Economic growth is a cancer, in this view. Its bad effects are permanent and cumulative, its blessings are evanescent and ultimately trivial.

Malthusianism is a religious conviction that desperately needs to think of itself as a science. From Thomas Malthus and his mathematical certainties to Paul Ehrlich with his famine timetables and the Club of Rome with its ‘scientific’ predictions of resource exhaustion, Malthusians have made confident predictions about the future and claimed scientific authority for statements that turned out to be contemptibly silly. That is the brutal fate that often awaits people who can’t keep the boundaries between science and religion straight.

It is happening on a massive and humiliating scale to the world’s greens today.